Is 5G as fast as they’re saying? We break down the speeds

Excitement about 5G, the fifth generation of mobile network technology, has been building steadily. The long process of rolling out 5G networks is already underway, with limited availability right now by all the major players, and at least one carrier — T-Mobile — promising nationwide 5G access by the end of the year. 5G brings a lot of potential benefits, but one of the critical questions that immediately crops up in any discussion about it is: How fast is 5G?

We could say, “How long is a piece of string?” But that wouldn’t be a very useful answer. The truth is, the speeds you get will depend on many factors, including where you are, what network you’re connecting to, how many other people are connecting, and what device you’re using. The figures you’ll see being bandied about suggest download speeds between 1Gbps and 10Gbps, though it can theoretically go higher. Latency, or the time it takes to send data, could go as low as 1 millisecond.

That doesn’t mean very much in isolation, so here’s a table that compares the speeds of different generations.

Generation 2G 3G 3G HSPA+ 4G 4G LTE-A 5G
Max speed 0.3Mbps 7.2Mbps 42Mbps 150Mbps 300Mbps-1Gbps 1-10Gbps
Average speed 0.1Mbps 1.5Mbps 5Mbps 10Mbps 15Mbps-50Mbps 50Mbps and up

The averages here are approximate, and all the different technologies complicate the results because each generation has evolved and continued to grow, even after the next generation began to roll out. Then there’s the issue of carriers mislabeling their networks; many labeled HSPA+, which is a 3G tech, as 4G.

The latest flavors of 4G LTE-A can theoretically go as high as 1Gbps, the lower end of 5G. Still, those speeds are not available anywhere right now and are mostly dependent on the modem inside your device.

While high-end phones in the U.S. are now regularly connecting at speeds averaging about 31.6Mbps according to Open Signal, low-end phones average less than half that at 14.7Mbps. The differences are even larger in South Korea, currently the market leader in speed. A high-end smartphone user in South Korea averages speeds of 70.6Mbps, the highest in the world. But a low-end smartphone user doesn’t see speeds anywhere close to that: Just 30.1Mbps.

5G may not be widely available just yet, but it's getting there. Here's where you can find 5G in the U.S.
5G Map

“The arrival of 5G will undoubtedly bring higher speeds for end-users — but those speeds will vary depending on how operators design their networks and how many users are on the network,” Els Baert, director of Marketing and Communications at NetComm, told Digital Trends last year. “Although 5G will be able to deliver higher speeds, the main difference end-users will notice will be the extra-low latency on 5G compared to 3G or 4G — this will open up new applications in the Internet of Things space.”

For the most part, we already enjoy fast download speeds on 4G. While it might be helpful to be able to download an entire HD movie in less than a second, it’s not something we need. Upload speeds, on the other hand, are abysmal right now. Looking at network latency, 3G could be anywhere from 60ms to 200ms, whereas 4G is currently around 40ms to 60ms. While 5G could theoretically take that down to 1ms, a more realistic figure might be 10ms. Not only will that make everything feel more responsive, but it will also allow for cloud gaming, improvements to AR and VR, robotics, and driver-less cars. Being able to act in real time over the network has endless potential applications.

5G is not going to replace 4G LTE or Wi-Fi but will work together with them to keep us connected at a decent speed wherever we happen to be.

According to a white paper from the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) alliance, which is trying to establish standards, 5G networks should offer 10ms latency in general and 1ms for special cases that require lower latency. The report also suggests, “data rates up to 1Gbps should be supported in some specific environments, like indoor offices, while at least 50Mbps shall be available everywhere.”

This 50Mbps figure has been the holy grail for a while now. It’s a generally agreed upon minimum speed that everyone would ideally have access to.

“The real benefit of 5G will be the fact that operators will be able to deliver fixed wireless broadband services to end-users that are of a similar quality to the services being delivered over fiber or cable,” Baert said. “This will increase competition as more players will be able to bring ultra-fast broadband to a substantial number of people all over the world.”

Traffic density, or the number of people connecting in the same area at once, has a significant impact on the actual speeds you’ll get. The NGMN suggests that, even in extremely crowded areas like stadiums with tens of thousands of people, we should be able to enjoy “data rates of several tens of Mbps,” with “1Gbps to be offered simultaneously to tens of workers in the same office floor.”

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Speed comparisons aside, it’s also important to remember that 5G is a complementary technology. It’s not going to replace 4G LTE or Wi-Fi but will work together with them to keep us connected at a decent speed wherever we happen to be.

Realistically, it’s going to take a while before 5G is widely available, and you’ll also need to upgrade to a 5G phone to take advantage of it. We’ll keep you posted on all the latest 5G news as it becomes a reality, whether you want to understand the different spectrums or read up on the newest carrier tests.

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